GenerationXIn 2010, I co-authored the book, Surviving the Baby Boomer Exodus: Capturing Knowledge for Gen X and Y Employees. It’s about how 76 million Boomers will eventually leave the workplace and too often take with them years of valuable corporate knowledge. The book was written for the corporate audience: HR, workforce, and talent managers; line of business managers; and senior management.

A principal method for capturing and transferring information and knowledge is through training and learning. This works especially well with explicit knowledge, which is knowledge that can or has been articulated and documented. It can be captured and made accessible such as in job descriptions, operating manuals, and job aids. Explicit knowledge is easily transferred from person to person.

There are generational distinctions as to how people like to have this knowledge transferred, and in this blog series, I’m highlighting some of the differences between Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y (Millennials), the three primary age groups that make up the vast majority of workers today. In the first blog, we looked at Boomers, and how they tend to like learning in structured ways, because that was the basis for their educational curricula in the years following the second world war. They prefer discussion and sharing of experiences rather than video games and multimedia, as tends to more be the case with younger learners.

In this second blog, we’ll take a look at the learning style and preferences of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1979 (it is important to note that sharp distinctions in how groups of people learn are perilous: as individuals, we each have our own unique way of absorbing information.)

Because of the hard-working, driven mentality of the Boomers, Gen X grew up in a new environment where more Moms were now working and divorce was becoming more common; “latchkey” for these kids became the norm. As a result, Gen X tends to be more independent and adaptable. They often saw their parents face layoffs and job insecurity, so it is more likely to find this group being less loyal and committed to a company than previous generations, even as they may be loyal to a particular boss or work team.

Because many Gen X came up during a time of economic uncertainty in a couple short recessions, they have become more concerned with job security—with staying employed. They keep mindful of career options in the event of another burst bubble, and they are prepared to move in the direction that ensures their continuing employment. We now recognize the recent Great Recession that began in 2007, when many Gen Xers were in their late 30s and early 40s has caused an attitude adjustment. While every job was a stepping stone to the next job, now Gen Xers are settling down.

They also have a much higher level of comfort with technology, which made working virtually possible, and which makes for a much different learning dynamic than prior generations.

Maybe because Gen Xers have an independent, free agent spirit, or that work security remains an illusion, this cohort exhibits an interest in lifelong learning. They place a very high value on companies that support continuous learning on the job, emphasizing the importance of continuous individual learning and personal development. The Gen X cohort has come to understand that the more they know, the more marketable they are, which can be a valuable antidote for when economic waters get choppy.

Communication is the primary cross-generational tool that enables successful learning, and people in the two more junior generations (Gen X and Y) expect communication to be fast. They’re life and work experiences have been shaped by the Internet and Internet-enabled tools, so they have come to know that information and learning can be had immediately. They can become impatient with learning flow that is perceived to be too slow and involving too much deliberation and discussion, leading them to multi-task when the pace of learning doesn’t move quickly enough.

Because they grew up playing video games and watching shows such as Sesame Street that couched lessons as games with humor, Gen Xers have the expectation that learning should be fun. And now with web 2.0 technologies, they tend to be more collaborative than previous generations, especially as it relates to learning and work.

Gen Xers prefer action learning where they learn by doing and finding real solutions to real problems. They favor incidental learning, or learning that is unintentional and spontaneous. Gen X’s least favorite learning method is traditional, classroom-based learning; instead, they greatly prefer self-directed learning, which is a strong departure from Boomers. One of our book interviewees found that the best way to transfer deep knowledge to Generation X may be through mentoring.

Finally, because Gen X (and Y) grew up having tons of learning options, transferring knowledge has to be very explicit. If you have a procedure with A, B, and C, people might think they could do A and C and skip step B. It has been found that giving instructions and imagining all the exceptions that could exist work better. It is what they have done since they were children, and it is very much a part of their experience.

In developing training that includes Gen X, give them the space to find their own best learning path. Do it quickly and efficiently and they’ll run with it.

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